Tony Blair has predicted that Labour would ‘annihilate’ the Tories if Jeremy Corbyn strongly opposed Brexit and instead backed a fresh public vote on the issue.
In a blog hosted by HuffPost UK, the former Prime Minister said that 2018 would be the Opposition’s “last chance” to insist voters should be allowed to accept or reject the detailed Brexit deal hammered out with Brussels this autumn.
Blair suggested the fresh vote would be either in the form of a second referendum or a special general election that could keep the UK in the EU.
Seizing on the fact that more than 80% of Labour members want to remain in the EU, Blair said that Corbyn and his top team had to radically change tack and ‘go to the high ground on opposing Brexit’ outright.
Appearing on SkyNews, he rammed home his point that a unified Labour opposition would exploit Tory splits.
“I can see a situation where the Labour party would annihilate the Tories if it went for the high ground, because it would also go right back into the fundamental division in the Tory party over the future of the country,” he said.
In his blog, the former Labour leader said the best option for Britain would be to “re-think and stay” in a reformed Europe, “where we use the Brexit vote as leverage to achieve reform”.
He predicted that the Tories would be increasingly split in coming months between those who wanted to leave the EU without a trade deal and those like Theresa May who want a ‘bespoke’ deal that is unachievable.
“It is absurd to say that it is undemocratic to demand that the people be free to have a say on what the final deal is, given the wide disparity in the forms of Brexit and their consequences,” he said.
“How can we assess the true ‘will of the people’ before we know what the alternative to present EU membership?”
When Britons voted in 2016, they were voting against the UK’s present membership of the European Union, but not what the future relationship with Europe would be, the former PM argued.
“It was like having a General Election in which the question is ‘Do You Like the Government’? If that were the question, few incumbent Governments would be re-elected.”
Speaking to Radio 4′s Today programme, he said the form of the fresh vote was a ‘second order question’ but one option was “a fresh referendum which will be a choice between two alternatives”, May’s new Brexit plan or remaining in the bloc.
Another option was a special general election with Labour putting in its manifesto that it would stay in the EU because May’s plan was not good enough. “You could have a general election for example…you could have an election on the issue,” he told the programme.
Blair’s article, published by his Institute for Global Change, highlights the differing positions by Labour Shadow ministers in recent weeks.
Corbyn last week said a second referendum was not party policy, but deputy Tom Watson said before Christmas that “you shouldn’t rule anything out”.
Aware that many of its working class supporters vote Leave, Labour has so far said it will not block Brexit but will instead opt for a ‘soft’ exit that keeps the UK close to the EU single market and customs union.
However, Blair’s sternest words were for his own party, telling the Shadow Cabinet that it was not “credible” to tell the voters that Labour would stick with Brexit in 2019 but simply be better negotiators than the Conservatives.
“Far better to fight for the right for the country to re-think, demand that we know the full details of the new relationship before we quit the old one, go to the high ground on opposing Brexit and go after the Tories for their failures to tackle the country’s real challenges” Blair said.
“Make Brexit the Tory Brexit. Make them own it 100%. Show people why Brexit isn’t and never was the answer.
“At every PMQs nail each myth of the Brexit campaign, say why the Tory divisions are weakening our country - something only credible if we are opposed to Brexit not advocating a different Brexit, and challenge the whole farce head on of a Prime Minister leading our nation in a direction which even today she can’t bring herself to say she would vote for.
“If we do leave Europe, the governing mind will have been that of the Tory Right. But, if Labour continues to go along with Brexit and insists on leaving the Single Market, the handmaiden of Brexit will have been the timidity of Labour.”
Labour has so far stuc
Blair said that he fundamentally disagreed with Labour’s support for Brexit but added that “even tactically it is mistaken” because it undermined a wider attack that the Tories were distracted from the NHS by obsessing over Europe.
The party was also in “a vulnerable position when the Government concludes ‘the deal’ some time in 2018” because it was only likely to be a general set of aspirations with detail left to be negotiated in a transition period after 2019.
“The Government will then say it is this deal or no deal and Labour will be left arguing that they would be better negotiators. This isn’t credible.”
Blair added that John McDonnell and others were as “confusing” in their arguments as the Government.
“Labour has its own ‘cake and eat it’ phrases. The Shadow Chancellor says we will not be in ‘the’ Single Market but ‘a’ Single Market.
“The Shadow Industry Minister talks of keeping the benefits of the Customs Union agreements but still being free to negotiate our own trade deals.”
However, Richard Tice Co-Chair of Leave Means Leave said: “Tony Blair and his elite gang are still determined to stop Brexit and hobble the UK to the very bad deal which we had in the single market and the customs union.
“The lies of ‘Project Fear’ have come unstuck badly and voters will not listen to these tired old people again for a long time.
“In particular they will not listen to someone who took us to war on a lie and who cannot admit when he is wrong.”